MacKay has plenty of time to correct his French, but he better hit the books

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Canadians would never support a prime minister who could not speak English. So why would we think it’s okay to elect a prime minister who fumbles his French?

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 3, 2020.

OTTAWA—Jean Chrétien did not speak a word of English when he was first elected to Parliament at the age of 30.

But he understood that to participate fully in Canada’s political process you need to speak both official languages.

In the end, his command of English opened up the top job in the country. While some said his language could be mangled, he knew exactly how to make it work.

During the height of the salmon wars between Canada and United States, then U.S. vice-president Al Gore had flown into Ottawa for an emergency meeting on the matter.

The prime minister hosted a small group in his dining room at 24 Sussex. It was summer and the air-conditioning was broken.

Brian Tobin, then fisheries minister, was hoping to bring Gore around to Canada’s point of view. The message was not exactly subtle.

The first course was smoked salmon, and the second was served on china featuring chinook salmon.

As the discussion grew more heated, the temperature in the room rose literally and figuratively. Gore was perspiring profusely as he and Tobin began to drill down to the details of their positions.

At one point, Gore raised his voice and shouted, “that is an outright lie.”

Chrétien jumped in with his mangled message to save the day. “Don’t worry,” he said to the vice-president. “We Canadians have had a hysterical claim to these waters for the past 300 years.”

Of course, Chrétien deliberately substituted hysterical for historical. But it was such a hilarious juxtaposition that everyone burst out laughing and the temperature between combatants went down about 10 degrees.

All that to say that thirty years ago, the prime minister knew the value of mastering a second language.

Which is why the Conservative backlash against the need for a bilingual leader is so bizarre.

Peter MacKay, the putative frontrunner in the Tory leadership race, was hoping for smooth sailing when he launched his campaign in his hometown of Stellarton, N.S., on a quiet Saturday on Jan. 25.

Family and friends were gathered, it was a MacKay love-in.

And with Jean Charest and Rona Ambrose officially out of the race, the show should have been a no-brainer.

MacKay had Tele-Prompters and beauteous prose. But he managed to massacre the few words of French that he had included in his presentation.

The mistake was not fatal. After all, MacKay’s first target audience is the membership in his own party, and some are decidedly ambivalent on the French fact in Canada.

Michelle Rempel Garner took to Twitter to complain there was really no need for a bilingual party leader.

Unlike Rempel Garner, MacKay understands the importance of a leader who can reach out in both official languages. The ability to bridge the two solitudes gave Progressive Conservative leaders like Brian Mulroney successive majority governments.

But perhaps, in his attempt to portray a relaxed, hometown feel, MacKay didn’t spend the time he should have in making sure that his few statements in French were grammatically correct.

It is also fair to say that, living in Toronto for the past several years, MacKay has not exactly been exposed to the French language to the same degree that he would in Parliament.

MacKay’s faux pas managed to make the front page of the Journal de Quebec. But in itself, that is not fatal. At least he is being talked about in the French media.

But what is disconcerting for his party is the continued insistence that it is fine to elect a unilingual English-speaker to the top job in the Tory party.

The late John Crosbie finished off his leadership chances back in the eighties when he compared speaking French to proficiency in Chinese.

Despite a great campaign team, and strong financial backing, he never got liftoff because of his inability to communicate in Canada’s second official language.

When one-quarter of the population claims French as a first language, it is evident that political leaders need to be able to master that language.

MacKay was on the Hill for 18 years before his recent hiatus. That was plenty of time to take advantage of the free private language classes offered to all Members of Parliament.

A unilingual Chrétien could never have been elected prime minister of all the people. Canadians would never support a prime minister who could not speak English. So why would we think it’s okay to elect a prime minister who fumbles his French?

MacKay has plenty of time to correct his mistake, but he better hit the books.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.